It’s a common practice in dance and drama training alike: to strip the body of old habits and movements, to achieve a somatic tabula rasa upon which new and diverse performances can be written. When third-generation British-Asian dancer Akram Khan began studying at the Northern School Of Contemporary Dance (so the story goes) his tutors were initially frustrated. Khan had previously been schooled in the 500-year-old Indian classical dance form Kathak and echoes of his former training were persistent. This troublesome merger, however, proved the start of something startling.
The body started making decisions of its own, says Khan, who has formed his own company based on his unique style. Rather than fight his impulses, Khan decided to explore them. Kathak has such a unique sense of control of energy, that when it spills into contemporary movement, it becomes something else.
It’s very much at the beginning, and I’m still searching for something -¦ I know I’m investigating a new language, a new way of moving.
Khan now has his own company and tours the world. His style of dance -“ contemporary Kathak -“ has been received extremely positively by dance critics. The work might just as easily have been dismissed as gimmicky at best or offensive at worst.
I’ve seen a lot of similar fusion [work] but I think what’s exciting for people is that it’s honest, explains Khan. It didn’t come from a place where I consciously thought, hang on, these two will fit together or these two will be an interesting combination or these two will be a fashionable thing.
Somewhat surprisingly, Khan has met with more resistance to his work in Europe than in India.
I was overwhelmed by the kind of curiosity [in India], genuine curiosity. Of course there are purists who aren’t in favour of it. But the ones who are really good at what they do, don’t really fear it.
Khan is lucid and verbose and the basis for his latest show Kaash is rich in philosophical, theological and even scientific ideas. Khan tells me -“ and he’s deadly serious -“ that Kaash is about quantum physicist David Deutsch’s theories of alternate universes, theories inspired by a myth of Shiva, the creator, preserver and destroyer of the world.
The story is there’s a man who asked Shiva, -˜Are we alone in the world?’ So Shiva says, -˜Well, why don’t you look into my mouth?’ So he opens his mouth and he looks down this black hole and discovers there’s multi-universes, there’s different universes within one big universe, says Khan.
Both Deutsch and the man in the myth concluded that we’re not alone. Khan explains that Deutsch has since created a computer that can connect with another computer in another universe.
(Later, my computer scientist friend Dr Tim assures me that Khan is not being fanciful about Deutsch, although that’s a very science-fiction way of saying it. Further, Deutsch has developed a computer whose function rests on the premise that particular particles exist across universes. At this stage I get a headache, punished for wanting to know more about parallel universes in scientific terms, rather than sci-fi ones. Give me Star Trek: Voyager or Philip Pullman any day.)
In spite of the complex premise, there is no spoken text in the show -“ The second you put text in, it comes back -˜why?’ explains Khan. Instead, he enlisted the collaboration of composer Nitin Sawhney and Turner Prize- winning sculptor Anish Kapoor to realise his vision. The results again defy theatrical (and possibly natural) laws.
When I approached Anish -¦ I just said, -˜I want a black hole,’ I want something so powerful that when dancers come on stage, they’re in the way of the black hole. He’s created this set that when you come in front of it, we become a distraction, and that means we have to work harder -¦ And the music’s the same, the music is so overwhelming, so overpowering.
It strikes me with a smile that Khan himself provides evidence for the existence of parallel universes. He lives in a world in which he can explore black holes, Indian mythology and quantum physics using two vastly different traditions of human movement. His passion for the work also makes it sound like an exciting world to visit.
One to beam down.
The Akram Khan Company perform Kaash from 20 to 24 August at 8pm at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Tickets range from $35 to $46 and may be booked on 9250 7777 or at www.sydneyoperahouse.com.